Whatever one thinks of its legitimacy, Sunday’s referendum in Crimea has shown that things are going very much Russia’s way in its dispute with Ukraine. In fact, one could say that everything has been going to plan, if the plan was to bring more than “stability” to the former Soviet state.

On February 20th, government snipers open fired on protesters in Maidan Square in Kiev. Among the dead were students, college professors, ordinary citizens, political activists, business professionals and ultra-nationalist political party members. This diverse crowd, united in protest against Viktor Yanukovych’s oppressive government, succeeded in overthrowing Yanukovych and in establishing an eclectic, unstable interim government. Before they could even state their purpose or commonly agree upon one, Russia invaded Crimea.

According to the Russian President and his apologists the protests represented nothing more than “Ukrainian neo-Nazi” elements provoking clashes with police in Kiev. Vladimir Putin’s limited ambitions in an unstable Ukraine were to secure the relative independence of Crimea, guarantee the rental of Black Sea naval bases to Russia and intimidate the new Ukrainian government into a more moderate nationalist stance.

The truth is that, for Putin, the Ukrainian protests represent provocative “Western values,” and Western support of the protests seem to confirm this. The plan, simply, is to stop any such development. Ironically, his intimidation of Kiev is uniting eclectic forces against him in a longer term struggle between Russia and the EU concerning cultural and political influence.

Extending “Europe”

The European Union always aspired to more than economic integration. It wanted a social-political unity that would avoid the wars endemic to European history. Once established, the EU produced a myriad of international student exchange agreements, cooperative professional training courses, and civil society development programs. These programs aimed at social-intellectual integration of the EU countries.

Social integration, however, extended beyond the EU proper. Since the demise of the Soviet Union, the EU and the US have attempted to aid previously Soviet occupied countries and post-communist economies to transition into democratic regimes and market economies. Apart from financial aid, this assistance included social programs. First, they helped Central-Eastern European countries prior to their joining the EU. Later, they extended their aid to the countries that now form the Eastern Partnership (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine).

The Eastern Partnership, however, is merely a bureaucratic version of existing programs and centripetal forces that both pull the EU together and pull Eastern Europe into the EU. Cross-border social and educational programs abound. Countless seminars and training programs have been financed and organized by innumerable Western NGOs.

Spreading European values

Younger generations from the Baltic Sea to the Black and Caspian Seas have participated in such programs for over a decade. Generally, initiatives focus on the development of the rule of law, human rights, democratic institutions and the market economy (interpreting these pleasant phrases is another matter — their meaning encompasses a wide intellectual ground, from a Soros-style radical leftist social agenda to Reaganite conservatism). For participants, the experience forges a contrast between the optimism they perceive as the political promise of Europe and the cynical political world in their own nations. They return to their countries more European.

It is not that they share recently coined Western social values, which are far left of their traditional familial and religious values. Instead, they share a belief in human rights, the dignity of man, political reform and economic freedom – tattered though these aspirations are in the 21st century. “Europe” means something to them. In relation to corrupt post-communist political society, “Europe” means: a way out, a hope.

Yet while the West sees these programs as beneficent, that is not the way Russia views them. With each extension of these activities, the social border of Europe is brought closer to the political border of Russia. For years the Russian newspaper Pravda has spoken of Western financed programs that encourage revolution in the East. They refer to the array of educational and activist institutes influenced by Western sources.

A bid to reclaim the “soul of Russia”

The Kremlin sees these programs as fomenting civil society unrest — a threat to its oligarchic and authoritarian power, to its regional influence and to an emerging world-view among the Russian elite that is curious. Vladimir Putin’s recent steps toward religious conservatism are an attempt, albeit an awkward one, at maintaining Russian cultural influence through Orthodox Christianity. They are an effort to connect Russia with the traditional familial values that pervade the religious unconscious of Eastern Europe.

Russia’s oligarchs have recognized the need for the religious soul that the Soviets tore out of the heart of their nation. The Soviets viewed religion as nothing more than a mask for bourgeois social control. They slaughtered priests and religious throughout half of Europe. Czech playwright, poet and president Vaclav Havel perhaps put the effect of communism on society best when he said: “We fell morally ill … We learned not to believe in anything, to ignore each other, to care only about ourselves. Concepts such as love, friendship, compassion, humility, or forgiveness lost their depth and dimensions.” Now the Russian elite have opted to restore religion as a salve for their morally crippled nation’s deep social ailments. 

Over the last decade, but particularly in the last few years, the Kremlin has begun to articulate a new nationalism along these lines: Russia as last defense against the secular proselytism and democratic anarchism of the West. Putin has blended this message with support for his own cynical authoritarian regime and his ambitions for Russia’s regional influence. The message is supposed to be one of common cause with Eastern European culture.

Old Soviet methods

Yet old Soviet habits die hard. Putin leans on heavy-handed Russian methods. Domestically, he has prohibited any democratic-style protests and rounded up protesters at random to silence them — precisely for fear of civil unrest. In foreign policy, the Kremlin has attempted to keep countries in line by alternatively supporting and intimidating local oligarchs and authoritarian elites.

With Ukraine, Russia used economic pressure: a prohibition on imports of Ukrainian chocolate and threats to cut-off gas or raise prices in Ukraine. Such pressure, however, only induced greater domestic dissatisfaction with Ukraine’s oligarchic regime. Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych played the pro-European card, rapidly pursuing treaty negotiations with the EU. The Kremlin reversed its tactics and offered $15 billion in financial relief and lower gas prices. Yanukovych decided not to sign the EU treaty. It was too late. The pro-European elements of Ukrainian society felt betrayed. Protestors gathered on Maidan.

The Kremlin is not entirely wrong about the reasons for discontent. The protests began with students, younger professionals and civil society organizations that have connections to various sources in the West, governmental and private, left and right. It is true they originally stood for varying shades of the concepts: “Pro-European” and Ukrainian “nationalism”. They stood for a future “Ukraine” closer to the “European” model of reform and hope. The original protestors firmly believed that joining the EU would be the best way to secure that hope.

The transformation of Maidan

Yet origins do not necessarily define entire movements. Yanukovych’s brutal crackdown on the students and his attempt to prohibit the demonstrations fed general disgust. The protestors were soon joined by the parents of students, by ordinary citizens appalled by the beaten faces and dead bodies of naively optimistic activists, by the many who were tired of oligarchy and by those opposed to Yanukovych’s efforts to tighten his grip on power. Yanukovych’s aggressive response only extended the political breadth of the crowd.

As a result the demonstrations became less about being pro-Europe and more about independence from the corrupt oligarchs that Russia chose to use as conduits of their influence. They were less about a future in the European Union and more about patriotic fervor against tyranny. Originally “pro-European,” Maidan became simply “nationalist.” All became more “pro-European” in the sense that all became “Ukrainian,” that is, pro-democratic, against oligarchic corruption and, increasingly, anti-Russian.

The transformation of Maidan is important because the Russian response, from Yanukovych’s violence to Putin’s invasion of Crimea, has strengthened the very elements that Russian propaganda feared. Independence from the political puppets of Ukrainian oligarchs became conceived as Ukrainian independence from Moscow, Ukrainian nationalism as flight to Europe. The result is an alliance between younger generations full of hope for an improved Ukraine in Europe, and a hardened political opposition strongly in favor of a Ukraine independent of Russian influence. Russia’s use of military might is only generating centrifugal forces.

Russia’s lost opportunity

The Russians could have viewed the protests as authentic discontent against corruption. The Kremlin could have sacrificed Yanukovych. They could have favored the protest government and sought common cause with them in line with Moscow’s new cultural conservativism. Instead, they chose to portray Maidan as a radical European movement, as anarchic liberty giving way to fascist nationalism. They chose this lens because Putin’s new conservatism is just a gloss on the same old Russian playbook.

Maidan is primarily a cry for justice, economic opportunity and political participation — not a choice to serve Europe. The Kremlin chose to paint Maidan as radical because that cry, now arriving on the steppes of Russia, might threaten Putin’s authoritarian regime itself. This is part of why Moscow will not back down.

Yet by choosing this lens, and by their aggressive response, Putin’s regime has driven Ukraine into a stance that is more pro-European than ever. As muffled protests against the invasion of Crimea emerged in Moscow on March 15th, and the West gears up to impose economic sanctions, Putin may be playing a strategic game of Russian roulette.

Mark Hanssen is a Ph.D. candidate in Economics. He previously worked for several years in civil society development in Central and Eastern Europe at Educational Initiative for Central and Eastern Europe.

Mark Hanssen is a Ph.D. candidate in Economics, specializing in the history of economic thought and development economics, at the Universidad de Navarra in Pamplona, Spain. Prior to completing his Ph.D....